The studio patch bay is where the signal flow is born, or dies - your patches have the power to make or break the session. But fear not! Understanding all those inputs and outputs and how they work together is a formidable undertaking but the tips in this free tutorial will help cut through the confusion and put you in good shape the next time you navigate difficult signal flows.
Start With The Basics
There are a few patch bay basics you need to understand before we dive into specifics. Most patch bays (API Legacy excluded) position outputs and inputs in dual rows housed in single rack unit modules. This is so designers can piece together bays of any size by adding modules as they are needed.
What is normaling? It's a connection made from an upper row to a lower row without having to make a patch. For example, a console's direct outputs, or bus outputs normally feed the DAW's inputs. It would be silly to have to make each one of these patches so they are married together via a patch bay using normaling or sometimes called a normal and sometimes mistaken called normalizing.
How does a normal work? A "normal" is when a signal from an output row automatically feeds the input row below. The connections on normals are made on the back side of the patch bay, the part that's invisible to the user. There are two kinds of normals, full and half. A “half-normal” means should you choose to patch from a normaled output row it does NOT break the signal as it flows to the input row below. A "full-normal" does the opposite, should you choose to patch from a normaled output row; it DOES break the signal flowing to the input row below.
What is a mult? A mult, often called a parallel in the UK, is a passive splitter meaning it will duplicate a single input to multiple outputs. It should never be used to sum two or more signals together. It is most often used to split a single output so you can send it to multiple inputs. If you are splitting a stereo signal you need to use two mults. A mult should only be used for line level signals and should never be used for mic or speaker level signals.
Color Code Your Patches
If you have the option of using colored or tagged cables, make your sequential and left/right patches using a color scheme. At The Blackbird Academy in Nashville, TN, we teach the students to make sequential and stereo patches in Black and Red combinations, but any two colors will work. This way, if you're troubleshooting a patch from a red cable, you can trace it to the end by zeroing in on the same color - it saves you time. In the UK they often use Red for left and Green for the right.
Learn The Patch Points By Location
We all learn by visualization. For example, when you drive or walk home, you know the route because it's a picture in your memory, you're not reading street signs. The same thing goes for your favorite grocery store. You know where bread, beer, produce, and meats are from the picture in your mind, not by the aisle number. This comes from experience. To quick-start your patch bay memorization jump the line and use location – don't read labels (you can tackle the terminology later.)
TIP: To nail down the location of patches use row color or even geographical location (think of the patch bay as a map.)
Ask The Right Questions
Getting your head around hundreds of patch points all starts by narrowing your focus. The truth is that a small number of patches are used 90% of the time, and others rarely or not at all. Your best chance at understanding a new patch bay, or your own is asking the right questions so you can learn commonly patched rows first. Once you know the answers, use the tips above to cement them in your memory with a color, or location. Once you have that down, zero in on the terms.
Where are the iso booth mic panel outputs on the patch bay?
Where are the console mic preamp inputs?
Where are the DAW ins and outs?
Where are the console's aux outputs? (so you can patch auxes to effects and talent)
Where are the outboard gear in/out patches and are they arranged as outputs over inputs?
Where are the console's line inputs (so you can bring effects returns back for monitoring)
Where is the console talkback output? (so you can patch it to the talent)
Where is the cue input? (for talent headphones)
Use the tips above launch yourself into a better understanding of any patch bay and studio's signal flow. Enjoy!